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The Future of Work Issue

Turn obstacles into innovation—fast

Times of crisis can trigger innovation—if leaders can guide the perception of a crisis, and if leaders understand how each team member responds to them.

Words by Ariela Kozin

Illustration by Jordan Bogash

In American workplaces, we often see crises as adverse events. But in China, some leaders take a different view.

“The beauty of our definition of crisis is that it touches on its paradoxical nature,” says Inseong Jeong, a Hong Kong-based researcher and Lingnan University management professor. “In Chinese, the word for crisis is ‘Wéijī.’ ‘Wéi’ means danger, while “jī” means an opportunity.”

This way of thinking about crises motivated Jeong’s research, published in the Journal of Management, where he asked workers to consider how unforeseen changes at work can foster innovation. 

“Employees need to feel like they trust their leaders to guide them through uncertainty.” — Inseong Jong, Lingnan University

Throughout two multi-source, time-lagged field studies with about 800 employees across 150 teams, Jeong and his colleagues learned that times of crisis could trigger innovation if the perception of a crisis is altered and if leaders can understand how each team member responds to crises. 

According to threat-rigidity theory, organizations react to challenges by utilizing tools that worked for them in the past and pausing innovation or new methods. For example, an organization that has used certain tools to rescue a project in the past will likely continue to use those tools despite improved organizational tools being available. 

“As we have new experiences, our brains become somewhat hardwired with previous knowledge, so it’s very hard to be aware of the rigid thought patterns,” Jeong tells The Workback.

Why some team members develop a fixed mindset

If they consider the threat-rigidity theory, executives can better understand why some team members develop a “fixed mindset,” which leaves little space for learning new ways of thinking to achieve better results.

Employees with a fixed mindset are also more vulnerable to the anxiety resulting from unforeseen changes because they are most comfortable with predictable processes.

“Someone with a fixed mindset is too focused on the pressures of management and perceived job performance to consider new ways of thinking,” Jeong says. 

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How to identify a team member with a growth mindset

However, team members with a growth mindset believe their talent and intelligence can continuously improve. While someone with a fixed mindset tends to shut down under pressure, someone with a growth mindset is positively excited when presented with the unknown. 

Whether it be a pandemic or an unexpected meeting invitation, people with growth mindsets are “the workers that executives can rely on to get creative while trying to solve any problem thrown at them,” according to Jeong. 

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Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck introduced the mindset theory in her revolutionary 2006 book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, to decode people’s thinking around learning and intelligence and how it can predict future behaviors. She also suggests that mindset begins to take shape long before people enter the workforce: It’s shaped when people are in grade school when they can learn that more success can come with more effort and skill building.

Even if one adopts a fixed mindset early in life, there is time to develop a growth mindset. 

“It’s about seeing things in a new way. When people change to a growth mindset, they change from a judge-and-be-judged framework to a learn-and-learn framework,” Dweck writes. “Their commitment is to growth; it takes plenty of time, effort, and mutual support.”

When leaders can turn crisis into creativity  

“Executives should be role models of positivity in times of crisis. They should demonstrate how their workforce can interpret crises as opportunities for creativity,” Jeong explains. If a leader takes on a growth mindset and tells workers that taking strategic risks is valued, employees may be less anxious about getting creative in times of uncertainty.

When leaders portray a growth mindset, they also trust their workforce to experiment — a critical factor in making it through any crisis. “Employees need to feel like they trust their leaders to guide them through uncertainty,” says Jeong. “They also need to feel trusted to take risks necessary to be creative.” 

According to an analysis by McKinsey & Company, executives who “set bold, actionable ambitions and develop a culture championed by all stakeholders” are 2.4 times more likely to outperform other organizations.

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What a fixed mindset can offer

It is not universally true that a growth mindset is always good and a fixed mindset is always bad,” Jeong says. 

Instead, leaders must consider context or how each person’s roles and responsibilities may be impacted by risk-taking. An engineer, for example, must be dynamic regardless of circumstances. It is their job to experiment, so continuing to innovate in times of change should be a welcome risk. At the same time, an accountant’s job is primarily ruled by algorithms and fixed processes. Therefore, times of crisis should not be the moment they choose to get creative.  

“So once leaders learn about each of their employee’s mindsets, the next step is arranging a balanced team,” Jeong concludes. “Once they know how each team member thinks, they can test new solutions with those with a growth mindset — the members of their team who can experiment and collaborate on a bottom-up approach to get better results when the next crisis arises.”

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Study Abstract — Although a crisis provides room for creativity, organizations often suffer from creativity deficits in such a situation. Indeed, threat-rigidity theory suggests that an employee-experienced crisis may hinder employee creativity. An interesting but unresolved question is thus, “When does an employee-experienced crisis stifle or stimulate creativity, and how?” Embedding our study in a person-in-situation creativity research stream, we introduce employee-experienced crisis, defined as the impact an employee experiences from crisis event(s) in a team, and examine its interaction with implicit theories (i.e., a fixed vs. a growth mindset) in employee creativity. We hypothesize that an employee-experienced crisis stifles employee creativity via increased job anxiety when the individual possesses a strong fixed mindset. In contrast, the same phenomenon stimulates creativity via enhanced creative process engagement when the individual has a strong growth mindset. In Study 1, we collected multisource, time-lagged field data from 506 employees working in 107 research and development (R&D) teams. The results supported our hypotheses. To further explore how the moderating effects of mindsets occur, we conducted Study 2, another multisource, time-lagged field study of 260 employees in 40 R&D teams. We found that the moderating effects of implicit theories are mediated by goal orientations (i.e., implicit theories are more distal moderators, and goal orientations are more proximal moderators). Overall, we provide an integrative account of when and how an employee-experienced crisis hinders or helps employee creativity.